The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

Jonathan Haidt has an interesting talk on TED on where differences from liberals and conservatives originate from.

He notes that “being open to new experiences” is a key predictor of these divisions.  Liberals crave novelty, new ideas, travel. Conservatives like dependability, routine, order and are low on openness to new experiences.  (This was captured by Robert McCrae in “The Social consequences of Experiential Openness”, 1996).

He notes that we are trapped in our own way of thinking, much like The Matrix, such that when liberals “lose” the 2000 election they think that all the Red States must form a country called *Dumb@$#$istan*.

In any effort to help liberals and conservatives see the world from the other’s perspective he notes that nature provides an initial draft for our mind which experience then revises (Gary Marcus, 2004).  He shows fascinating graphs from 23,000 people who indicated their ideology and answered some questions on THe Morality Foundations Questionnaire at concerning their beliefs.  He categorizes individuals along 5 fundamental moral dimensions, the first three of which are heavily entwined with social capital.  He says the 5 core dimensions for the moral mind (abstracting from anthropology, neurology, psychology, etc.) are:

1. Harm/care – as a species care a lot about others

2. Fairness/reciprocity

3. In group/out group – only among humans are there large groups that are united together for common purposes, and as a species we self-consciously produce or reinforce tribes (for wars, sports team loyalty, etc.)

4. Authority/respect – often based out of love

5. Purity/sanctity (either with regard to things like sex, or the foods we put in our body)

What’s fascinating is that if you chart individuals across parts of the world you find that in all societies, conservatives treat all these five factors as moderately important; liberals however focus almost exclusively on the harm/caring or fairness/reciprocity principles. In most societies, the increase in attention given by Conservatives to factors like Respect, Authority, Order, Purity rises much more sharply than the attention to Caring and Reciprocity falls. Haidt describes conservatives as having a 5-channel moral equalizer.

Haidt notes that Liberals speak for weak and oppressed; they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions; they want order even at cost to those at the bottom. Haidt thinks Edmund Burke had it right when he said in the wake of the French Revolution: “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”

He notes that liberals take for granted that order will always be there, but describes an interesting experiment by Fehr and Gachter written up in Nature in 2002. People in the experiment played a game in which they could cooperate or defect and like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the pot grew larger through collaboration. At the end of the game, the pot was split equally among the players. Although all shared in the gains of the group, an individual could often make out more on any given turn by not cooperating. When they played the game with no forms of punishment allowed (a liberal’s paradise), cooperation started at a moderate level and declined each round. Cooperators got angry at others’ defections and decided to reciprocate, creating a race to the bottom. Starting in the 7th round, the experimenters allowed the participants to punish through the remainder of the game. Cooperation rates immediately jumped to 70% and then increased in every following round.  The authors talk about how altruistic punishment is essential to cooperation.

Haidt says our most remarkable wonder of the world is not the Grand Canyon (erosion writ large) but our ability to cooperate and live together in hostile environments (the Alaska tundra or the Arizona desert) and in big cities. He notes that this takes full use of all of our moral toolkit and requires sub-groups, organizational tools, moral incentives to rise to our best and say no our worst voices (in which Haidt thinks religion plays a key role).

In our Saguaro Seminar, participant Liz Lerman asked “why aren’t our minds large enough to encompass “both-and” rather than “either-or.”  Haidt sings a similar tune when he notices how many Eastern Religions realize that both halves are essential: like Ying/Yang or Vishnu the preserve and Shiva the destroyer working together; or a quote from a Buddhist leader “The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.  Haidt notes that our Righteous Minds were ‘designed” by evolution to: 1) Unite us in teams; 2) Divide Us against other teams; and 3) Blind us to the truth.  He says we don’t have to adopt moral relativism, but we can’t charge in to a situation saying “I’m right”, “You’re wrong”.  We need to first understand who we are and who they are; what are the reasons why others are doing what they are doing.  This will help us develop moral humility and ultimately be more effective in changing the world into what we want it to be.

Watch Haidt’s TED talk here.

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